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Facing costly HVAC fixes, some school leaders want state officials to make accessing funding easier

Beardsley School is 118 years old and in need of modernization
Dave Wurtzel
/
Connecticut Public
An air purifier in Beardsley School's cafeteria signals "clean." The Bridgeport school has had ongoing air-quality problems.

More than 100 schools statewide have applied for a share of a $150 million state grant to improve school indoor air quality, ahead of the Dec. 1 deadline.

But to access that money, municipalities must provide matching grants. That’s left some schools with fewer resources feeling excluded, while other districts are struggling to find any avenue of relief for the enormous costs involved with upgrading or replacing an HVAC system in a school.

In Old Saybrook, the school district is installing air conditioning in three schools. The elementary, middle and high schools are situated between the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound on fairly marshy ground with a high water table.

“We have had days we've had to send everybody home, because the humidity was at a point where floors were slippery, walls were slippery, and it was very difficult for our staff and students,” schools Superintendent Jan Perruccio said at a public hearing Wednesday.

Then there are secondary costs: like reworking electrical systems in school buildings to provide enough power for the upgraded HVAC systems. In Old Saybrook, the district says the project cost across three schools is estimated at $7.2 million.

“We discovered how long these projects are going to take, how incredibly expensive they are,” Perruccio said. In the absence of full air conditioning, she said her district would not be able to comply with certain humidity and temperature standards state officials considered mandating in recent legislation.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) industry standards set the guidelines for indoor air temperature and humidity levels for mold control.

School districts looking to make HVAC improvements now cannot access this new pool of state money unless they provide matching funds from their own budget. Perruccio was concerned that to come up with matching funds, she’d have to take money from the education budget, unless the policy was changed.

Experts are pushing state lawmakers to allow local school districts to use federal dollars they received via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as a local match. Currently, towns that use ARPA COVID-19 relief money for ventilation upgrades receive limited state money.

“The ARPA dollars should be able to be used for this program as the local match,” said Brian O’Connor, director of public policy and advocacy for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “We think this will help alleviate some of the equity issues in some of the cities and towns that may have the lack of resources, and it would provide greater leverage for those communities.”

Leonard Lockhart, first vice president of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said the program must contact schools that did not apply, most likely due to limited resources. The funding will cover costs of the initial studies as long as schools get the grant. Connecticut has 169 school districts, translating to around 935 schools.

The new state funding will supplement more than $165 million that schools have already committed for air filtration improvements since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, through funding they received from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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